Who Runs the Show?

Back in June, a tidbit of old news went viral — the ill-received 2013 attempt of one classical concertgoer to crowd-surf during a performance of Händel’s Messiah.  Here are some of the headlines:

Händel is not amused. (image source)

“Crowd surfer carried away by Handel thrown out of alternative Proms” (Independent)

“Audience ejects crowd-surfer from classical concert” (Telegraph)

“At Handel’s Messiah, he was a very naughty boy! Leading scientist kicked out of classical music concert after trying to crowd surf” (Daily Mail)

“Scientist Tries To Crowd Surf To Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ Gets Kicked Out Of Concert By Concertgoers” (Huffington Post)

“Punk As F–k Scientist Ejected From Concert For Crowdsurfing to Handel” (Gawker)

All these articles tell more or less the same story.  A year ago, an American scientist named Dr. David Glowacki attended a performance of Händel’s Messiah as part of the Bristol Proms, a non-traditional classical concert series based at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre that encouraged audience members with the following guidelines: “Enjoy a beer in the pit, chat when you like, clap when you like, whoop when you like, engage with the music as you like, and no shushing other people.”  Despite the latter directive, when Dr. Glowacki was so moved by the music as to begin “lurching from side to side,” the audience bristled for his removal from the venue.

It’s easy to read these headlines and laugh.  Just picture it: crowd-surfing at a classical concert?!  The incongruity of the image is, objectively, funny.

But this begs the larger question: why is the image so incongruous?  Why should a behavior that expresses uninhibited enjoyment of the music seem so out-of-place in a concert hall where the goal of the people onstage is to produce music for the audience to enjoy uninhibitedly?

For the answer, we turn to Dr. Glowacki’s own response to all the hubbub — “Handeled during the Messiah,” a June 24 post on his personal blog.  It’s definitely worth reading in its entirety, but for now I would like to quote just a bit from his concluding thoughts:

It is the audiences (not the director, and not the performers) that run the show.  They have internalized the norms and they enforce the norms.  The norms that they have internalized might only be a few generations old, but they are very strong.

What does this mean, exactly?  Let’s break it down, starting with the last sentence — “the norms that they have internalized might only be a few generations old.” 

The norms in question comprise what I’ll call “concert hall etiquette” — sitting silently and attentively in the concert hall (in the dark, no less) and clapping (not whistling, not shouting, unless to demand an encore) only at the ends of pieces (not at the ends of movements).  To be clear, I do not think there is anything fundamentally wrong with these norms.  They are part of Western classical concert culture, and there is something magical about a full audience united in directing their silent, rapt attention towards the music and musicians.  Plus, it’s the same etiquette expected at a movie theater.  Nothing radical going on here.

But now let me backtrack — these norms may be part of Western classical concert culture, but, as Dr. Glowacki has pointed out, they are “only…a few generations old.”  Only in the latter half of the 19th century did classical music move into the concert hall as we know it, and only then did audiences adopt “concert hall etiquette” — for instance, Richard Wagner was among the first to dim the lights during performances, and Gustav Mahler inscribed in the score of his Kindertotenlieder that its five component songs’ “continuity must be preserved by preventing interruptions, such as for example applause at the end of each song.”  Before that, for centuries, classical music was parlor music, party music, music meant to be punctuated by laughter and applause and dancing.  Granted, that is an extremely abridged and un-nuanced history of Western classical concert culture, but the point is this: only recently in the scheme of Western music history have music and musicians been placed in the spotlight while the audience listens in the dark.

Now let’s take a look at the first part of Dr. Glowacki’s statement — “It is the audiences (not the director, and not the performers) that run the show.  They have internalized the norms and they enforce the norms.”

Reading through Dr. Glowacki’s full post will reveal that his so-called “crowd-surfing” was actually a cheer let out whilst “reveling in the intensity of the 30-strong choir only a few meters away.”  So, he got a little excited, but he didn’t do anything too wild.  If he had cheered or “lurched side to side” in a traditional Western classical concert hall, his behavior would not have been acceptable (just as it wouldn’t have been acceptable at a movie theater, or a library, or a nice restaurant) — but this was the Bristol Proms.  Traditional “concert hall etiquette” was a no-go here — audience members were allowed, nay, expected to “chat” and “clap” and “whoop” and “engage with the music.”  Dr. Glowacki did just that, and yet, he was forcibly removed from the venue — not by venue staff, but by fellow audience members upset by his behavior.  The audience, evidently, had set its own rules — rules defined by the very late-19th-century Western classical concert culture that the Bristol Proms had been created to turn upside-down.

Here we have a dilemma: a concert, designed to attract new classical concertgoers with its laid-back, engaging, accessible atmosphere, has that atmosphere hijacked by an audience caught up the “very strong” norms of traditional concerts.  As recent trends have shown, traditional concerts aren’t doing a whole lot to attract new classical concertgoers, so we need ones like the Bristol Proms, if only for, as Dr. Glowacki writes, reasons of “simple economics.”  But how can we expect these non-traditional concerts to succeed in attracting new audiences if traditional norms are so pervasive even in non-traditional settings?

Dr. Glowacki’s circumstances provide a fascinating case study in a classical music world that is in the midst of some big changes.  As musicians and venues and etiquette and the music itself continue to adapt to the times, will audiences, new and old, adapt as well?

For further reading, check out “Why is it good to crowdsurf at Handel concerts?” (The Conversation).  Also take a look at “Audience Shaming Needs to End” (Noted), which is about a different — but not so dissimilar — situation than Dr. Glowacki’s, and which offers some really interesting thoughts on classical concert culture and audiences.

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